In the last article, we went through a detailed overview of the first area in From Software’s original “Dark Souls”, but the “so what?” of the article had to be pushed back to today. If you haven’t read the previous article, please go back and do that. Today, we talk about tutorial levels and how the Undead Asylum not only fits the definition, but how it is one of the best at setting the tone for the rest of the adventure.
We’ve all played games that place us in a restricted environment and bark commands at us, not allowing us to proceed until every single task is complete. While I have praised Zelda games recently for accessibility, the tutorial in “Twilight Princess” is a big part of why I’ve only played it once. A troubling number of games lead players around a tightly choreographed playpen like a dog on a leash, jerking them back into line with even the slightest misstep. This has led to many in the gaming public and press to openly mock the very idea, and bemoan any game with a non-optional tutorial section. These levels are everything gamers hate: freedom is stripped away, they are placed in a patronizing environment, and forced to prove they understand how to move a character in a circle. The more these are dressed up to be something different, the more glaring they become. These are poor tutorial levels, ones which have failed miserably at their purpose.
A well crafted tutorial serves two purposes, and must sacrifice everything that does not directly serve these two purposes. These purposes are: 1.) Teach the player about the controls, and 2.) Communicate to the player the tone and mechanics of the game. Players who are already familiar with these should be given the option to proceed as quickly as possible. While some immersion breaking is to be expected when communicating to the player which buttons serve which purposes, everything should be delivered in a way that seamlessly integrates with the game proper. The tutorial level needs to be an actual level in your game, not merely a list of tasks that have to be completed before playing the “real” game. The fewer words spent explaining things, letting the player to learn organically at their own pace, the better. This should be an environment with a small amount of everything the game has to offer, so that less time is spent explaining new things as they come up. It should give the player the same level of freedom that they experience in game, but with some bounds to they don’t get overwhelmed. This is not easy work, nor is it quick, but when done right, how does the Undead Asylum stack up?
Right off the bat, the developer messages telling the player which buttons do what are delivered via Orange Soapstone messages, which litter the game proper, and are usually messages from other players designed to deliver helpful information about upcoming challenges (or trick them into jumping off cliffs). By choosing to deliver things this way, the break in immersion is mitigated, as it also communicates a hugely important mechanic in the game: player communication. Each time one of these is encountered, there is always an immediate opportunity to put it into practice. Moving along, there is very little that is signposted in the level, forcing players to search and explore the level. “Dark Souls” is a game that is very heavy on exploration, so this being reinforced right off the title screen is also important. In fact, as mentioned in the previous article, nearly every single design choice communicates the mechanics clearly. As the player progresses in the game, they will likely discover that they can eventually return to this location, fighting a more challenging version of the boss from before, as well as collecting two very important items. This helps to tie this level back into the larger game world it is largely separated from. In short, the Undead Asylum is not only a tutorial level, but it manages to be one in such a way that I doubt many players picked up on it their first time through the game. I know I didn’t.
Tutorial levels are an important part of a well crafted game, and when the same care is put into them as the rest of the game, it can make all the difference in a title’s success. This is what accessibility is all about. Imagine “Dark Souls” if, instead of starting the game at the Undead Asylum, it started at Firelink Shrine. If this was the case, the game would not be nearly as well-remembered, and I doubt it would have attained the popularity and sales figures that made the sequels possible. While it would have still been a bit of a niche game, a good niche game attracts those not already in those highly specialized crowds and lets them join these groups. This is how a series becomes embedded in our collective memory, not by broadening appeal to every human being with eyesight and a pulse, but by sucking players in and spitting them out as full-fledged fans.